Civilizations without communities

Donald DeMarco writes that “civilization matters”:

The father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, once wrote “I scorn to distinguish between culture and civilization.” At the heart of this statement lies Freud’s philosophy of culture. For him, the transition from culture to civilization is not a favorable one. Indeed, he said that “every individual is virtually an enemy of civilization.” In other words, civilization places too many restrictions on man’s need for instinctive satisfactions and too many obstacles in his path toward happiness. For Freud, civilization is man’s enemy. For this reason, Philip Reiff, editor of the ten-volume Collected Papers of Sigmund Freud, refers to him as “the champion of the second best.”

The Catholic view, on the other hand, sees civilization is the crown of culture—it is the condition to which society aspires. Just as the individual person aspires to better things, so too, does culture (a society of persons) aspire to higher modes of civilization. Indeed, the scholars of antiquity contend that if all the great and broad contributions of the ancient Greeks could be distilled into a single word, it would be civilization.

Freud seems to be thinking of civilization as a problem for the individual, if civilization means communities and the relationships and duties and rights and responsibilities that come along with it. And Catholics understand civilization as a crowning achievement because it has been the context in which individuals form the relationships that let them practice virtue and try to be moral creatures in relation to one another. What if it were possible to abstract civilization from community life, though? What would that look like in practice, and how would it change human life experienced both in its individual and communal spheres? That’s the sort of civilization we have now, according to Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens:

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, the daily life of most humans ran its course within three ancient frames: the nuclear family, the extended family and the local intimate community. Most people worked in the family business – the family farm or the family workshop, for example – or they worked in their neighbours’ family businesses. The family was also the welfare system, the health system, the education system, the construction industry, the trade union, the pension fund, the insurance company, the radio, the television, the newspapers, the bank and even the police.

When a person fell sick, the family took care of her. When a person grew old, the family supported her, and her children were her pension fund. When a person died, the family took care of the orphans. If a person wanted to build a hut, the family lent a hand. If a person wanted to open a business, the family raised the necessary money. If a person wanted to marry, the family chose, or at least vetted, the prospective spouse. If conflict arose with a neighbour, the family muscled in. But if a person’s illness was too grave for the family to manage, or a new business demanded too large an investment, or the neighbourhood quarrel escalated to the point of violence, the local community came to the rescue.

The community offered help on the basis of local traditions and an economy of favours, which often differed greatly from the supply and demand laws of the free market. In an old-fashioned medieval community, when my neighbour was in need, I helped build his hut and guard his sheep, without expecting any payment in return. When I was in need, my neighbour returned the favour. At the same time, the local potentate might have drafted all of us villagers to construct his castle without paying us a penny. In exchange, we counted on him to defend us against brigands and barbarians. Village life involved many transactions but few payments. There were some markets, of course, but their roles were limited. You could buy rare spices, cloth and tools, and hire the services of lawyers and doctors. Yet less than 10 per cent of commonly used products and services were bought in the market. Most human needs were taken care of by the family and the community. …

Life in the bosom of family and community was far from ideal. Families and communities could oppress their members no less brutally than do modern states and markets, and their internal dynamics were often fraught with tension and violence – yet people had little choice. A person who lost her family and community around 1750 was as good as dead. She had no job, no education and no support in times of sickness and distress. Nobody would loan her money or defend her if she got into trouble. There were no policemen, no social workers and no compulsory education. In order to survive, such a person quickly had to find an alternative family or community. Boys and girls who ran away from home could expect, at best, to become servants in some new family. At worst, there was the army or the brothel.

All this changed dramatically over the last two centuries. The Industrial Revolution gave the market immense new powers, provided the state with new means of communication and transportation, and placed at the government’s disposal an army of clerks, teachers, policemen and social workers. At first the market and the state discovered their path blocked by traditional families and communities who had little love for outside intervention. Parents and community elders were reluctant to let the younger generation be indoctrinated by nationalist education systems, conscripted into armies or turned into a rootless urban proletariat.

Over time, states and markets used their growing power to weaken the traditional bonds of family and community. The state sent its policemen to stop family vendettas and replace them with court decisions. The market sent its hawkers to wipe out longstanding local traditions and replace them with ever-changing commercial fashions. Yet this was not enough. In order really to break the power of family and community, they needed the help of a fifth column.

The state and the market approached people with an offer that could not be refused. ‘Become individuals,’ they said. ‘Marry whomever you desire, without asking permission from your parents. Take up whatever job suits you, even if community elders frown. Live wherever you wish, even if you cannot make it every week to the family dinner. You are no longer dependent on your family or your community. We, the state and the market, will take care of you instead. We will provide food, shelter, education, health, welfare and employment. We will provide pensions, insurance and protection.

Romantic literature often presents the individual as somebody caught in a struggle against the state and the market. Nothing could be further from the truth. The state and the market are the mother and father of the individual, and the individual can survive only thanks to them. The market provides us with work, insurance and a pension. If we want to study a profession, the government’s schools are there to teach us. If we want to open a business, the bank loans us money. If we want to build a house, a construction company builds it and the bank gives us a mortgage, in some cases subsidised or insured by the state. If violence flares up, the police protect us. If we are sick for a few days, our health insurance takes care of us. If we are debilitated for months, national social services steps in. If we need around-the-clock assistance, we can go to the market and hire a nurse – usually some stranger from the other side of the world who takes care of us with the kind of devotion that we no longer expect from our own children. If we have the means, we can spend our golden years at a senior citizens’ home. The tax authorities treat us as individuals, and do not expect us to pay the neighbours’ taxes. The courts, too, see us as individuals, and never punish us for the crimes of our cousins.

Not only adult men, but also women and children, are recognised as individuals. Throughout most of history, women were often seen as the property of family or community. Modern states, on the other hand, see women as individuals, enjoying economic and legal rights independently of their family and community. They may hold their own bank accounts, decide whom to marry, and even choose to divorce or live on their own.

But the liberation of the individual comes at a cost. Many of us now bewail the loss of strong families and communities and feel alienated and threatened by the power the impersonal state and market wield over our lives. States and markets composed of alienated individuals can intervene in the lives of their members much more easily than states and markets composed of strong families and communities. When neighbours in a high-rise apartment building cannot even agree on how much to pay their janitor, how can we expect them to resist the state?

The deal between states, markets and individuals is an uneasy one. The state and the market disagree about their mutual rights and obligations, and individuals complain that both demand too much and provide too little. In many cases individuals are exploited by markets, and states employ their armies, police forces and bureaucracies to persecute individuals instead of defending them. Yet it is amazing that this deal works at all – however imperfectly. For it breaches countless generations of human social arrangements. Millions of years of evolution have designed us to live and think as community members. Within a mere two centuries we have become alienated individuals. Nothing testifies better to the awesome power of culture.

Harari suggests that markets and states foster “imagined communities” that serve as emotional replacements for the community life of the past because they allow for new feelings of participation with our neighbors, even if we don’t know the neighbors.

The civilization of the past is described by Harari as a cycle of “weak individuals > strong family and community > weak state and market,” and our present civilization is described as a cycle of “strong individuals > weak family and community > strong state and market.”

So what does all of this suggest? It suggests that we’ve created a civilization without community life; at least without the sort of specific and obvious community life our ancestors would recognize. It suggests we’re living through something new.

Will we become machines?

Joseph Bottum reviews a slew of recent books on the coming of the machine age, and reflects on what it might mean (or not mean) for the future of humanity. It’s worth reading in whole for how well he skewers confused utopian thinking. In short, we cannot make ourselves immortal by destroying what we are: embodied and finite creatures. There’s also this, which I’m included here as something to look back upon in the years to come as a test of its skepticism:

We seem to have some weakness that lures us to think fundamental change is barreling down upon us. As it happens, the utopians and dystopians do share one thing in common: For centuries now, neither group has been much more successful at predicting the future than the gypsy lady who reads palms down on 18th Street. But still we imagine that this time, it’s going to be different. This time, the world will change.

The current futurists tend toward happy visions of the world to come, but along the way to their utopias they take our susceptibility for the new and divert it to the old, old belief that there’s something ugly and vile, something outrageous, about life in a fragile material body. Why should the new gnostics differ much from the old? Each of them longs to be an animal, a tree, a stone, an angel, a machine—anything but a human being.

What games can teach

Byron Reeves makes a contrarian point in arguing that certain video games teach people how to embrace leadership roles:

People say it’s most important to be born a leader. You get nurtured, you get selected, you’ve probably showed leadership qualities early on in school, you’ve been involved in activities that developed something that naturally existed. In the games [researchers] felt that leadership was not so much an attribute of individuals who were doing the leading, but leadership was an attribute of the environments in which the people were acting.

When players are required to take on different roles in order for their team to win (i.e.-some are warriors, some are priests, etc.), they learn that success requires not only leadership, but also followership. This is just “teamwork” in a sense, but I think it’s more helpful to think about the distinctions between leadership and followership.

John Mayer isn’t great because we all want to be him (though a lot of us do want to be him), but because we recognize his immense talent and are willing to follow him in enjoying a beautiful experience.

We each have a role to play in every scenario. If video games can teach that, it’s a redeeming thing. Real life will always be better.

Small talk

Karan Mahayana writes on My Struggle with American Small Talk:

“How’s it going?” I ask the barista. “How’s your day been?”

“Ah, not too busy. What are you up to?”

“Not much. Just reading.”

This, I have learned, is one of the key rituals of American life. It has taken me only a decade to master. …

American life is based on a reassurance that we like one another but won’t violate one another’s privacies. This makes it a land of small talk. Two people greet each other happily, with friendliness, but might know each other for years before venturing basic questions about each other’s backgrounds. The opposite is true of Indians. At least three people I’ve sat next to on planes to and from India have asked me, within minutes, how much I earn as a writer (only to turn away in disappointment when I tell them). In the East, I’ve heard it said, there’s intimacy without friendship; in the West, there’s friendship without intimacy.

When I spent time with someone, I want to spend real time with them. I want to speak meaningfully with them, at length. I want to hear things that make me understand or know them better, or think more richly about some subject than I did before, or simply share time in a way that isn’t the equivalent of killing time together.

This can make you seem brutal or unsentimental when you’re curt in a run of the mill commercial encounter. But if you’ve going to get wet, dive in. Count me in as an opponent of small talk.

Surveillance ≠ safety

A few years ago Penn State began spending millions installing new surveillance systems across its University Park campus. The proliferation of surveillance at Penn State, as in our society in general, changes the character of the community.

Smart, limited surveillance can make sense—but blanket surveillance is a corrosive that changes the character of communities in a damaging way. Its effect is to leave no common place free of cameras, and the effect of cameras watching every public space works to defeat the very purpose of public spaces.

Do you remember childhood? Do you remember what it was like to play when your parents and their friends were with you, hanging nearby but paying just enough attention to interject or admonish on occasion? Now do you remember as you grew up a bit and would meet friends someplace in the neighborhood—maybe a nearby woods or creek or field or dead end street? There was a place when you could truly be alone, or at least be with friends without a watchful eye. Completely different spaces—one public but regulated, and the other a genuinely free.

In the article covering Penn State’s push toward surveillance, an administrator named offers the justification that surveillance is “part of our society.” This is a strikingly unthoughtful remark. All variety of crime is “part of our society” too. What administrators like this are really saying is something like: “Don’t look to universities to do anything other than reflexively embrace the fashions of the culture.”

A community with a high degree of neighborly interaction and trust—that is, a healthy culture—is not a place that requires surveillance.

In old films you’ll notice characters sometimes hop into their cars, pull down the visor, and catch a falling set of keys for the ignition. The car doors weren’t just unlocked—the keys were kept in the car! These were communities that trusted themselves, even while knowing there was always a risk a bad actor might take advantage of that atmosphere of trust.

While networked technology makes things like mass surveillance possible, the paradox is that those networked technologies have the effect in this case of creating thousands of individualized, invisible social moats. They corrode community culture by outsourcing its most vital function, which is to know your neighbor well enough to watch his back.

We can’t create safe spaces by surveilling them in order to assign blame or solve crimes after the fact. What we need are policies that fosters trust and personal relationships. This means towns where you can leave your car open. Campuses where you can trust your dormmates to care enough about you to keep their eyes open for you.

It’s true that surveillance is “part of our society,” but universities especially should know that it doesn’t have to be, and that the safest communities are those without surveillance.

Valuing thick relationships

Thinking lately about thin v. thick relationships.

I think most relationships we have are thin. They’re light, they’re pleasant, and they’re superficial. They work, but there’s not a great deal of thickness to them. We smile, we ask how they’re doing (Good!), we didn’t really care, and after we get whatever we needed in the first place, we move on until they appear in front of us again and we repeat the process.

There are thick relationships though. These matter.

To a careless observer, thick relationships might look thin. Thick relationships might involve everything the thin one does, except the “we didn’t really care” part.

Thick relationships don’t necessarily exist or last in the popular way. They can be sparked in an instant, in a simple but singular moment, and they can survive without contact for years (sometimes decades), and when two friends meet again, they have the ability to pick things up right where they left them. Like a cool glass of iced tea sitting on the windowsill on one of those summer afternoons that, when the day is spent well, seem to last a lifetime.

I try to make a great percentage of my relationships thick. Especially because I’m already feeling the truth in the statement that, as we get older, out social worlds narrow. Thickness for me is about doing everything I can to make sure my social world expands.


We sleep together not because it’s fiscally responsible, but because we are affectionate beings. Our minds need rest, but our minds also need camaraderie and intimacy and whispering. Anxiety and stress seem less intimidating when discussed with a partner while wearing pajamas. It’s important to talk about our days lying side by side, discuss children and household situations, gossip about neighbors and colleagues, plan for tomorrow in the confines of private chambers. We cuddle. We laugh. At the end of each day we remove the onerous cloaks we’ve donned to face the world, and we want to do this lying next to our best friends, to know we’re not in it alone. —The Atlantic, Why We Sleep Together

Fascinating piece delving into the changing uses, attitudes, and customs of sleep and shared lives.